Every once in a while someone will contact me with questions about the title of this column, “There’s No Such Thing As A Bully.” I understand the potential confusion. To some, it may seem that I don’t believe bullying exists. Clearly, as someone who has parented a bullied child, nothing could be further from the truth. But there is a very good reason I chose to approach bullying with this perspective in mind.
When my son first began showing signs of being bullied, I was very concerned about maintaining his self-esteem and identity. On a daily basis he’d endure ugly words whispered to him in the hallway, written in notes and sometimes blatantly yelled to him on the playground. I worried that he’d soon begin to believe them and view himself that way—as a “loser” or a victim.
So my husband and I spent endless hours reminding him of his worth—replacing those negative labels with positive words in hopes he’d look at himself through our eyes. He was a smart, energetic kid with good friends, but this small group of kids had simply decided he’d be a good target. We wanted him to know he was not a victim, and it was important to choose wisely when responding to the bad behavior of others.
We steered him clear of revenge mentality, taught him to stand up for himself, get help when he needed it and, most importantly, get excited about his future. The word “loser” began to have no meaning for him.
As my son grew, he chose to rise above the name-calling and he began to see his own future more clearly—as a successful person on his way up in the world.
One day he looked at me and said, “I feel kind of sorry for them because, if they don’t choose to stop bullying, their lives aren’t gonna turn out so well.”
He was right. The statistics for kids who bully aren’t good. It got me to thinking, if the goal is to encourage children to change that bad behavior, slapping an ugly label like “bully” on them wasn’t going to help either. It would only reinforce their actions.
Words are powerful and negative labels of any kind are destructive—whether it be bully, loser or victim. This is especially clear in the case of Amanda Cummings, a 15-year-old girl whose suicide just made the headlines. Allegedly, bullying is partially to blame. The name-calling even continued while she lay in her hospital bed, in a coma.
I wonder what goes through the mind of a kid who would choose to verbally attack a dying girl. What do their parents think? And were there consequences?
My son is 13 now, has many friends and has a very clear idea of where he’s going in life. We still have the occasional struggle here and there, but we're not perfect. We try to face our challenges and respond with dignity and as much patience as we can muster.
We can't simply depend on our schools to fix the problem of bullying. Empowering our children to take responsibility for their behavior is mostly a parenting issue and begins at home. The schools can and should reaffirm it, but it’s up to us as parents to plant that seed.
So here in this column, at home and at every workshop, I make it clear. I believe there’s no such thing as a bully, only bullying behavior—and behavior is a choice that reveals your character.
Taryn Grimes-Herbert is a screenwriter, performer, the author of the I’ve Got character-building book series for children, and was 2010’s Woman of Achievement in the Arts Honoree for Orange County, NY. Calling upon her professional acting experience on Broadway, film and television, she speaks out and takes her books into classrooms hoping to help kids build character, develop empathy and learn to create a positive future through creative dramatics activities.